The Singer’s Gun
The Singer’s Gun is Emily St. John Mandel’s second novel. Her first, Last Night in Montreal, came out last year just after I first encountered her on Twitter. Her answers to questions in an online chat piqued my interest, and she was gracious to everyone with whom I watched her interact. That, plus my long-running infatuation with first novels, led me to seek out a copy at an independent bookstore while vacationing in northern Michigan. Having given it a good review, I was eager to read her second one, also published by Unbridled Books (which, I have to say, does a lovely job with covers and layout). Lucky for me, my local library had a brand new copy (have I mentioned what smart buyers our librarians are?) and once I got started, I knew I would not be needing the three weeks of checkout time.
Anton Waker, around whom the action in The Singer’s Gun revolves, is a young reformed crook whose dream it is to marry a nice girl and become a successful middle manager in a quiet New York office tower. But everyone he has ever known has a secret (or two or three) and their conflicting “truths” begin to undo one another, from Anton’s hard-working and shady parents and his commitophobic bride back in New York, to his former secretary Elena and last-minute business partner David in self-imposed exile on the Italian isle of Ischia. I can say no more about the plot without spoiling it.
But the delightful thing about both of Mandel’s novels is not the plots—though they are psychologically complex and multiculturally gritty and walk the tightrope between the familiarity you relate to and the fantastical that beckons you into the glittering unknown—but the pacing. She teases out simultaneous trails of present and past that reveal in small gasps, and without timeline confusion, the major and minor twists of the story (and there are many). These forays into past and present are lengthier at the beginning, giving the reader time to test theories about the characters, but begin to alternate with more speed until near the end they are rapid-fire, prescient glimpses of the final page. This attention to structure now has me studying it for the benefit of my own writing.
Characters come and go in these books, and I found I identified with the players of The Singer’s Gun more so than I did with those of Last Night in Montreal. But all of them have stayed with me, despite the other novels and stories I have read since. Memorable characters are perhaps harder to write than likable characters, and Mandel reminds us that they are not always the same.
Another point in her favor: beautiful passages appear without warning. The writing is emotional without sentimentality and evocative without excess.
This is a smart novel, better than her first (which, as I said, I enjoyed), and getting some well-deserved critical acclaim, such as this recent review by The Washington Post. Recommended for mystery and crime lovers, fans of indie publishing, those who enjoy a good character study, or anyone seeking smarter-than-usual summer reading.